North Korea’s former spy chief was reportedly headed to the United States on Tuesday after stopping over in China, presumably for talks on a possible summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
Kim Yong-chol, a senior official with close ties to the North Korean leader, was seen by journalists from The Associated Press at Beijing’s international airport who reported he was on his way to the US.
He is considered the North Korean leader’s right-hand man and serves as the vice central committee chairman of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency also reported Kim Yong-chol arrived in the Chinese capital on Tuesday morning and reserved a flight to New York City.
AP reported he was heading to Washington, DC, but changed his flight to New York City.
Yonhap said it is “widely expected” that Kim Yong-chol would travel to the US “to reciprocate recent visits” by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The two may meet to put final touches on the preparations for the planned summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un, according to the report.
Chung Sung-yoon, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said Kim Yong-chol would be the most senior North Korean official to step onto US soil since Vice Marshall Jo Myong-rok met then-president Bill Clinton in 2000.
Kim Yong-chol sat just metres away from Trump’s daughter Ivanka at the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang in February – one of the first signs of a diplomatic thaw between North Korea and the US and South Korea after tensions over its nuclear weapons reached a breaking point.
The Kim-Trump summit is expected to take place in Singapore on June 12.
Trump cancelled what would be the first-ever meeting between US and North Korean leaders last Thursday, only to change his mind a day later.
On Tuesday, South Korea’s foreign ministry said it will focus “all efforts” to lay the groundwork for the success of ongoing diplomacy with the North.
“We will closely monitor the situation and play every role we can,” ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk was quoted by Yonhap as saying.
On Monday, veteran American diplomat Sung Kim led an American delegation to Panmunjom at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) for talks with North Korean officials.
Reports said that talks continued until Tuesday.
A major sticking point at the proposed summit is expected to be how to denuclearise the North.
According to reports, Trump has demanded that Pyongyang carry out a swift denuclearisation approach, while North Korea reportedly favours a gradual drawdown.
American officials are sceptical that North Korea will ever entirely abandon his nuclear weapons, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in said North Korea isn’t convinced it can trust security guarantees from the US.
From 2009 to 2016, Kim Yong-chol was the director of North Korea’s General Reconnaissance Bureau, the unit tasked with cyber warfare and intelligence gathering.
During that period North Korea raped up its hacking programs, including a hugely costly penetration of Sony Pictures that was seen as an attempt to stop the release of an American comedy film poking fun at Kim Jong-un’s regime.